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Assessing Teaching

Assessing Teaching

16 May, 2016

Because teaching is one of the most significant parts of your work in higher education, it merits regular scrutiny and upgrading.

Not only is it vital for you to know what — and how — you are doing in the classroom, others who must evaluate your work need such evidence as well. Whether your ways for evaluating your teaching are formative or summative, the following are suggestions on assessing teaching:

Gathering Student Feedback

Student evaluations are the most commonly used way of evaluating an instructor’s effectiveness in the classroom. Although they do not reflect your expertise with regard to content, they provide feedback on how well you are communicating what you know. High ratings are not definite indicators of effective instruction, and low ratings, likewise, do not always mean ineffective instruction. What student evaluations do give is an indication of how students feel about some of the particular teaching practices and activities used during a specific period of time. The results can inspire you to ask yourself questions about the teaching and learning objectives you’ve selected for a class, about your role as the instructor, and about your expectations for students’ learning.

End-of-semester evaluations and written comments are standard methods for gaining information about your teaching. Generally, students can report on the extent to which a teacher seems prepared for class sessions, communicates clearly, stimulates interest and demonstrates enthusiasm. However, if you’re interested in what and how students are learning and would like to use their feedback to improve your teaching, consider conducting periodic and midterm classroom assessments.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Informal classroom assessments

Informal assessments (one-minute paper, muddiest point, concept dump) can be done at the end of a class session or through student journals. You can ask students to react to a fairly general question (“What is the vital concept you learned this week?” or “What course activities are helping you learn best?”) or you can structure questions to emphasize more closely on specific aspects of your teaching (“What effect has our use of think-pair-share sessions had on your learning?”). Students’ comments can reveal that they are learning what they need to learn or that certain class activities help or hinder their learning.

  1. Questionnaires

Questionnaires get responses from the whole class and allow for an anonymous (and therefore probably more candid) response. Use questionnaires at the beginning of a course to obtain information about the students (e.g., prior course work or experience with the subject, preferred modes of teaching and learning, special problems a student might have). Midterm questionnaires are important source of data for your teaching portfolio, and can inform you of hidden problems, giving you enough time to make changes beneficial to students. We recommend using the Teaching Documentation Program for midterm evaluations, but you can also perform them yourself. End-of-term questionnaires can yield meaningful responses to questions about the overall effectiveness of the course.

  1. Interviews with students

Interviews are a well-established way of identifying students’ reactions. If enough trust and rapport exist, you can do the interview yourself. Most instructors, however, ask an outside person to interview students to guarantee anonymity and objectivity.

The interviewer puts students into small groups of no more than six and asks them to talk among themselves about what is going well in the class and what is not going well. Each group then reports to the class as a whole. The interviewer asks for clarification when needed and tries to get the groups to reach consensus about the most significant issues affecting learning in the class. The entire process can be completed in 15-20 minutes.

The results of the interview are reported to the instructor confidentially and without identifying individual students. Although students have better knowledge than anyone with what their own reactions are, they also can be biased and limited in their perceptions. They sometimes have negative feelings, often unconsciously, about women, people who are ethnically different from themselves, and international teachers. Perhaps more significantly, students usually do not fully understand how a course might be taught, either in terms of pedagogy or content. Hence they can effectively address what is, but not what might be. Information from someone with a professional knowledge of the possibilities of good teaching can help supplement and interpret students’ perceptions.

Responding to Feedback from Students

If you’re relying on students to give some information for a comprehensive assessment of your teaching, it’s vital to respond to their feedback as soon as possible. There’s no need to give the results for every item on a questionnaire or every question asked in an interview, but you might want to discuss two or three items to which the group responded favorably and two or three items that you hope to enhance. If the assessment presents common concerns or misunderstood subject matter, address those issues in class. If you’ve chosen to make changes based on student feedback, explain what you want to do differently and why. Clarify confusion about goals and expectations.

Be sure to determine the changes you have control over and intend to change (e.g., better overviews, clearer instructions), changes you will not make (e.g., number of tests given), and those things you cannot change because you have no control over the situation (e.g., size of the class). Remember to thank students for their input. Tell them how valuable it is and be sure to employ the changes you negotiated and/or promised to make.

Try to keep a positive attitude when discussing feedback results with your students. The manner in which you request feedback and discuss the results of the survey will indicate to students whether you take their feedback seriously. Avoid being defensive, angry, preachy, or overly apologetic.

Using Student Feedback to Improve Teaching

Asking students to critique your teaching performance can be an enlightening as well as helpful experience. Here are some helpful hints as you consider student evaluations:

  1. Take several days to think over students’ feedback before responding to any positive or negative comments.
  2. Feel good about glowing comments you receive about your teaching, but keep them in perspective.
  3. Keep unfavorable comments in perspective, too. Negative reactions from one or two disgruntled students may not accurately represent the perceptions of the entire class. Some negative comments are meant to be constructive, however.
  4. Look over all the comments and try to look for patterns before discounting individual comments.
  5. Start small. Don’t try to change too many things at once. Start with small, low-risk changes.
  6. Acknowledge that your students may not always understand your intention. They may misinterpret intended humor as condescension, high standards might be seen as lack of caring, or an easy-going approach as incompetence. Recognize that such misinterpretation occurs, learn from it, then move ahead.
  7. Avoid complacency because you constantly receive good or negative feedback.
  8. Good teaching takes continuous work and re-tooling. Remember, the feedback is based upon views, which can and do change.